A Good Speech, But That’s Only A Start

February 01, 2018

The mainstream reviews of President Trump’s first State of the Union address Tuesday are begrudgingly glowing. NBC’s Savannah Guthrie said “it was optimistic; it was bright; it was conciliatory.” CNN’s Jake Tapper noted “the inspirational stories of Americans, and the calls to unity, and the beautiful prose.” Fox News’s John Roberts called it “very powerful—very patriotic.”

White House aides may hope this praise will help reset the Trump presidency. But that won’t happen unless they and the president take action to fulfill Mr. Trump’s call for “the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve.” What follows the State of the Union address is more important than the speech itself.

Mr. Trump called Tuesday for bipartisanship and united efforts to make America better. That should become a regular theme. He presented an agenda; now he must deliver it so voters will realize he has worked hard to meet his commitments.

The economy should be at the center of the administration’s efforts. It was the most important issue in 2016 and remains so today. Although Mr. Trump’s approval rating, 40.2% in the Real Clear Politics average, is the worst in the history of polling for an elected president a year into his first term, really good economic numbers are keeping his approval rating higher than it would otherwise be.

Mr. Trump has talked a lot about the rising stock market, but he needs to do a better job explaining his economic policies in ways that resonate with the middle class. Though just over half of Americans own stock, New York University economist Edward Wolff has estimated that only 14% own shares directly. The rest own stock indirectly, through such vehicles as mutual funds and retirement accounts. Mr. Trump should put more of his focus on jobs, paychecks and rising consumer and business confidence. He ought to praise workers and business leaders for the growing prosperity, rather than congratulating himself.

To avoid appearing stale, the White House should regularly present new proposals, initiatives and executive actions that complement the State of the Union and keep with its spirit. And here’s some free advice: Stop blindsiding natural allies, as the president did in September when he cut a budget deal with Democrats without informing GOP leaders beforehand.

The calls for bipartisanship in Mr. Trump’s address were offset by needless partisan digs, as when he whacked ObamaCare rather than simply celebrating the individual mandate’s demise. The president should stop insulting Democrats whose votes he needs to advance his agenda. (For that matter, he should stop insulting non-Democrats.)

That isn’t to say Mr. Trump should stop defending his agenda. He and his spokesmen should rebut misleading statements by critics and set the record straight. But Twittertrash talk, misstatements and name-calling provide excuses for Democrats not to cooperate with the president.

If Mr. Trump persists in calling Chuck Schumer the Democrats’ “head clown” and in belittling Nancy Pelosi, Democrats would be smart not to retaliate with insults. They shouldn’t simply dismiss his policies either. Instead they should offer an agenda for what they would do to make America stronger. This would signal voters that Democrats have stopped being the “resistance” and become the alternative, one capable of winning the White House.

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When Democrats obstruct Mr. Trump’s agenda, he should respond in disappointment, not anger. This would give him the high ground with voters and make bipartisan cooperation more likely. Americans are also worn down by the relentless pace of controversies, tweets and Friday-night news dumps. The president should slow down. Both these suggestions would help him keep control of the news cycle, though I realize it’s as likely to happen as Tom Brady is to be benched during the Super Bowl.

Some Trump fans worry that if he discards his unorthodox tactics, he will lose the “magic” that won him the presidency. Mr. Trump was indeed a different kind of candidate, but he won primarily because he was the change candidate when 62% of voters said in exit polls that they felt America was off on the “wrong track.” Oh, and he benefited from running against Hillary Clinton, one of the worst presidential candidates in recorded history.

Many a president has attempted to use the State of the Union to re-energize his team, set a direction, and build support for his agenda. Time will tell if this White House can build on the good that Americans saw in Tuesday’s impassioned address. My guess is Team Trump won’t—but I’d be delighted to be proven wrong.

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